Lovelock, Rapley and big ocean pumps
September 27, 2007, 12:59 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

There’s a letter to the editor in this week’s Nature from Jim Lovelock and Chris Rapley (late of the BAS, now at the Natural History Museum) suggesting that pumping up nutrient rich water from below the mixed surface surface layer of the oceans would increase the rate of photosynthesis in the seas above and thus pull down carbon from the atmosphere. Key para:

The oceans, which cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, are a promising place to seek a regulating influence. One approach would be to use free-floating or tethered vertical pipes to increase the mixing of nutrient-rich waters below the thermocline with the relatively barren waters at the ocean surface. (We acknowledge advice from Armand Neukermans on engineering aspects of the pipes.) Water pumped up pipes — say, 100 to 200 metres long, 10 metres in diameter and with a one-way flap valve at the lower end for pumping by wave movement — would fertilize algae in the surface waters and encourage them to bloom. This would pump down carbon dioxide and produce dimethyl sulphide, the precursor of nuclei that form sunlight-reflecting clouds.

There will be a lot of people who don’t like this suggestion for a lot of reasons (I wrote about some of the generalised disapproval of “geoengineering” in a Nature feature a few months back, and see also these blog posts (first | second) over at Climate Feedback). As well as the generalised mistrust of engineering interventions, though, I suspect that there will be some pretty specific criticisms, as my colleague Quirin Schiermeier notes in a news@nature article on the subject. Here’s his take on the downside:

“The concept is flawed,” says Scott Doney, a marine chemist at WHOI. He says it neglects the fact that deeper waters with high nutrients also generally contain a lot of dissolved inorganic carbon, including dissolved CO2. Bringing these waters to the lower pressures of the surface would result in the CO2 bubbling out into the air. So contrary to the desired effect, the scheme could result in a net ‘outgassing’ of CO2, he warns. “There is no technological fix for this problem,” he says.

Others say such a project would have no net effect on CO2 in the atmosphere. “At every meeting I’ve been to, when they have talked about this idea for surface ocean CO2 removal, the point has been made that you would bring up nutrients and inorganic carbon in the same ratio as you remove as biomass,” says Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at WHOI. And there are potentially many harmful impacts on sea life, he says.

I haven’t taken on board the wider press coverage, but I hear that various oceanographers — including some who are not ideologically averse to a touch of geoengineering — share these or similar doubts. One encouraging thing is to learn from Quirin that David Karl (author of a fine review that touches on some of the science behind all this in the Nature Reviews Microbiology oceans special I was enthusing about earlier) will soon be trying out a pump along these lines made by Atmocean and seeing what effects it has. That experiment will surely teach us something, just as the iron fertilization experiments being discussed at Woods Hole this week have. And just as in the iron case, there should be exciting science on how the oceans work here even if there’s no world-saving breakthrough.

Update: There’s a fairly full and convincing account of the issues in a comment made by Peter Williams of Bangor over at Climate Feedback


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good idea, might work. some people have reservations though. what about idea of polar cities to house survivors of global warming events in the future? see Wikipedia entry on this subject or google the term as “polar cities” to see my blog on this: http://climatechange3000.blogspot.com

Comment by danny bloom

Oliver Morton, can you blog on my polar cities idea, keeping in mind that it is a kind of Swiftian modest proposal as well as a serious vision of what we might need to continue the species, if it comes to that… Dan Bloom in Taiwan, watching


Comment by danny bloom

Just a note: the Chinese language newspaper in Taiwan, UNITED DAILY NEWS, carried the Lovelock proposal and letter to Nature in a Chinese translation, complete with chart and graphics in Chinese, too. The story has legs!

Comment by danny bloom


Danny Bloom Breaks Through on Polar Cities

Danny Bloom, a climate blogger and reporter working out of Asia, picked up a troubling fact from the great scientist James Lovelock–that soon we will see polar cities–and has worked relentlessly over the last eleven months to make the world pay attention. He’s beginning to make headway: a Chinese blogger picked up images he posted on his site, and he’s about to get a break from some major media here in North America. This has made me wonder: Am I getting too scattershot in my efforts on climate change? I talk about culture, music, science, politics…maybe I’m losing my focus. Feel free to comment. (Or not.)

But for now — congratulations Danny! As long as we think the climate will remain more or less the same, we are not likely to change our lives. Reminding people that polar cities are in our future, unless we make drastic changes, is to force people to pay attention to what needs to be done…now.

Comment by Danny Bloom

By Stephen Leahy

Credit:Han Xin multimedia co.

Graphic depiction of a model polar city in the year 2500.

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jan 2 (IPS) – Dan Bloom thinks it’s time to figure out how to build self-sustaining cities in the polar regions because climate change will eventually make most of Earth uninhabitable.

These polar cities may be “humankind’s only chance for survival if global warming really turns into a worldwide catastrophe in the far distant future,” Bloom told IPS.

Bloom isn’t a scientist or any other kind of expert. A U.S. citizen in his late fifties living in Taiwan teaching English, he’s lived all over the world as a reporter-editor, teacher-translator and author. And now Bloom wants to shake people out their everyday indifference to the great emergency of our age: climate change.

“Life goes on as usual here in Taiwan. No one is doing anything and they don’t want to talk about it,” he says.

And sadly inaction begets inaction.

“The inactions of others can make us underestimate threats to our own safety,” writes Camilla Cavendish in a recent issue of the Times of London newspaper.

Cavendish cites studies that suggest a kind of herd mentality. If climate change is a problem, then people would be doing something about it. Since they’re not, then there is no problem. However, once people are aware of this dangerous tendency to follow the herd over the cliff, we can break away and forge our own more sensible path, she says.

Bloom wants people to realise that the world is on a path that could possibly lead to a future where just a few hundred million people survive in specially-designed cities in the Arctic. Originally he imagined this might happen 500 years from now. But scientists tell him it could happen far sooner than that.

Bloom has contacted scientists, experts, reporters, and many others around the world about his polar cities idea. A few months ago, a Google keyword search for “polar cities” would have produced no results. Today, there are nearly 3,000 sites that feature or offer comment on Bloom’s idea, including one with a series of polar cities illustrations.

Plenty of the comments are from Bloom himself, in a one-man-who-doesn’t own-a-computer attempt to spread the word. Suffice to say he spends a lot of time in Tawianese internet cafes.

His Quixotic quest began less than a year ago. Having heard various conflicting news reports about climate change, Bloom decided to research the subject as thoroughly as he could. The genesis of the polar cities idea came from a dire op-ed by the eminent British scientist James Lovelock in January 2006 in the Independent newspaper.

Lovelock wrote that the Earth will heat up far faster than any scientist expects due to many positive feedbacks such as melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice. “… Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable,” he wrote.

Lovelock’s viewpoint was widely criticised as excessively pessimistic fear-mongering by many experts. No stranger to controversy, Lovelock first proposed the “Gaia Hypothesis” of Earth as a single highly complex organism in the 1970s. Last October, with many leading scientists listening, he reiterated his claim that “global heating” is progressing very fast and was likely to produce an apocalyptic six-degree C. rise in the global average temperature before the end of this century.

“At first I was depressed, but I am an optimist,” Bloom says.

If catastrophic climate change was a very real possibility, why not start now to prepare sustainable polar retreats just in case. More importantly, simply imagining that polar cities may be needed one day for the very survival of the human race might wake people to the threat climate change poses, he says.

“We’re really in an emergency — we can’t go on normally,” Bloom argues.

But polar cities is an idea that many climate change experts refuse to consider. Most of the climate scientists IPS contacted for this story declined to comment. Those who did respond said imagining such a future was not productive when humanity needs to focus on “how the world can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

“It’s silly to think 200 or 300 years into future, it’s more useful to think 20 or 30 years out,” said Ross Gelbspan, a former Washington Post-Boston Globe reporter and author of several books on climate change.

Gelbspan has done a great deal of thinking about the near future as the impacts of climate change take hold. There is no stopping the future deaths of millions of people from climate change, he believes. The only question is how many millions. His future scenarios range from a totalitarian nightmare in response to climate-driven mass migrations and social chaos to real world peace. His best guess today is we will see those extremes, and everything in between.

“We need to start talking about the kind future we want to have,” Gelbspan told IPS.

Talking to young people is especially important, since it is their future. And it’s important to offer alternatives and solutions. Wind farms, for example, could easily replace all of the U.S. energy produced by coal and oil, he says.

“What’s the resistance to widespread use of renewables?” Gelbspan wonders.

In the U.S., he says the answer is to get the money out of politics. Oil, coal and other industries make major financial contributions in a country where presidential candidates spend tens of millions of dollars to get elected. As a result, the next U.S. president is unlikely to make the necessary drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Dan Bloom doesn’t have answers. He knows there is a serious problem that we aren’t addressing.

“Life on Earth is very fragile but we’re screwing things up,” he told IPS. “I’m going to spend the last years of my life pushing this idea of polar cities to wake people up. I don’t care if people call me crazy.”

Comment by danny bloom

[…] nutrients from the depths this way might be investigated as a geoengineering tool (here’s my blog entry on it from the time). And the Searete patent specifically covers just such geoengineering applications: A system for […]

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[…] to readers way back in my novel EARTH (1989).  Our friend, The Economist’s Oliver Morton, wrote an extensive blog on the Lovelock/Rapely proposal, which may get funding from the Gates Foundation for preliminary research.  And Morton fairly […]

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[…] to readers way back in my novel EARTH (1989).  Our friend, The Economist’s Oliver Morton, wrote an extensive blog on the Lovelock/Rapely proposal – which may get funding from the Gates Foundation for preliminary research.  And Morton […]

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